Feature

November Today's Farmer magazine 2019

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Lifting limits

Doug Boswell was paralyzed from the waist down in a four-wheeler accident. Carey Portell sustained critical injuries in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. Lee Howerton has dealt with poor vision and light sensitivity his whole life.

They may have different disabilities, challenges and sto­ries, but these three farmers are connected. They’ve endured tremendous hardships, emerging stronger on the other side. They’ve adapted their lifestyle to preserve their livelihood. They’re united by common themes of patience, acceptance and persistence.

What they also have in common is the Missouri AgrAbil­ity Project, a program that provides free services to enhance the quality of life for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers with disabilities or chronic health problems. AgrAbility works with all types of operations and condi­tions, said Karen Funkenbusch, project director and Univer­sity of Missouri state health specialist.

“AgrAbility offers solutions that allow these farmers to continue contributing to agriculture in Missouri,” she said. “It offers them continued self-employment and the rural lifestyle they want and need. Above all, it offers them hope.”

Administered by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, AgrAbility does not provide direct funding to clients. Rather, the staff conducts interviews and on-farm assessments to determine a farmer’s needs and then works with third-party funding sources to obtain assistive technol­ogies, devices or modifications, Funkenbusch explained. Partners include Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilita­tion and Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, a division of Missouri Department of Social Services.

“When you’re talking about Missouri agriculture, our farms are so diverse,” Funkenbusch said. “Everything AgrAbility does is customized to meet that particular farm­er’s situation, and that’s why it takes a team approach.”

Even though the national program is nearly 30 years old, authorized by the 1990 Farm Bill and funded on a four-year cycle, the AgrAbility Project isn’t widely known outside the circles of its beneficiaries. Seeing their successes is the best way to illustrate the program’s impact, Funkenbusch said.

“Look at their stories. These farmers persevere,” she said. “They have to rise above because life hasn’t been fair to them, but they don’t let that get in the way of living and doing what they love.”

Doug Boswell

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2017. Boswell and his wife, Teresa, drove from their home in Springfield, Mo., to their farm in Stockton, where they were renovating the property and tearing out old fences to make way for new ones.

After several hours of work, Boswell still needed to feed the cattle, but then told his wife he’d be done afterward. The simple task became complicated when one cow took off running. With no fences to keep her in, Boswell knew he had to chase her down. He jumped on Teresa’s four-wheeler and sped after the maverick cow. When she stopped suddenly, he stopped, too. The ATV flipped, and they both went tumbling.

“I have a split second I don’t remember, and then I was rolling on the ground, the four-wheeler was rolling end over end beside me and dirt was flying,” he recalled. “When I finally landed, I laid there for a minute trying to get my breath back, and then I went to get up. I couldn’t. I looked at my legs, and they weren’t moving.”

Boswell had shattered his right shoulder, broken all the ribs on his left side and punctured a lung. Worst of all, a triangular metal piece on the rear of the ATV had fractured his vertebrae and paralyzed him from the waist down.

“It didn’t cut my spinal cord in half, but it hit me hard enough that it bruised the nerves so that they don’t talk to each other anymore,” Boswell explained. “I have some tingling in my legs, but if you touch me, I can’t feel it at all.”

He was flown by medical helicopter to Mercy Hospital in Springfield and then spent several weeks in rehabilitation cen­ters before going to Denver, Colo., for a two-month stay at Craig Hospital, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries.

It was there that Boswell learned of AgrAbility.

“At Craig, their main objective was to teach me how to live with what I’ve got,” he said. “They want to get you back to doing what you were doing before—in my case, farming. That’s why they put me in touch with AgrAbility. If they hadn’t done that, I’d still be trying to figure it out on my own.”

Four months after the accident, Boswell came home, feeling lost. Before, he had been a Snap-On Tools salesman, running routes in the Springfield area. That wasn’t an option anymore. He had the farm, but he wasn’t sure how to run a cattle operation with his disabilities. AgrAbility helped him find his way.

“I didn’t know what else to do, really,” Boswell said. “I was worried about how to go back to work and make money again. I’m pretty good at sales, but that’s hard to do from a wheelchair. Farming is what I wanted to do anyway, and AgrAbility got me hooked up with the right people.”

Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation helped fund the tech­nology Boswell needed to continue farming. He now has an all-terrain wheelchair with tracks and a chair lift on his flatbed pickup that can raise him into the seat of his tractors and truck, which he operates with hand controls. AgrAbility also helped him set up a cattle-working system that is safe and accessible from his wheelchair.

Even with this technology, adjusting to life as a paraplegic hasn’t been easy, Boswell admitted. But he’s determined to farm—and farm successfully.

“I’ve never been one to cry, but I’ve cried so much over the past two years,” he said. “I’ve always had a good attitude about everything I’ve ever done in my life, but this has really knocked me down. It’s been tough. But I realize you can either sit down and do nothing or go on with your life.”

Today, the Boswells are building a handicapped-accessible home on their picturesque 160-acre farm. With help from his adaptive equipment, Boswell, now 54, maintains a herd of around 30 cattle, produces his own hay and takes care of farm chores. He hasn’t found much he can’t do, although he admits he’s had to learn to be patient.

“Some things have been pretty simple. Some things have been incredibly hard,” Boswell said. “Before, whenever I needed something done, I just did it. Now, everything I do is so slow and takes so much more time, but I’m getting used to it.”

Ultimately, Boswell wants to walk again, and he’s pursued that goal at various rehabilitation centers across the country. Neuro­surgeons and other doctors have given him little hope, but he refuses to accept their prognosis.

“I don’t want to believe that I’ll never walk,” Boswell said. “I’m going every place I can to try to figure out how to make it happen.”

Carey Portell

Drunk-driving crashes don’t always happen in the wee hours of the morning after last call at the local bar. Sometimes they happen when least expected, in early evening, on the way to Zumba class.

That’s what happened to Carey Portell on a fateful Decem­ber day nearly nine years ago. The then 35-year-old and her daughters, Olivia, 12 at the time, and Mackenzie, 10, were only a few miles from their St. James, Mo., farm when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The girls were treated and released from the hospital within a day.

Portell, however, had to be extricated from her crumpled Ford Taurus and suffered devastating injuries: a fractured pelvis, crushed right ankle and dislocated left foot.

Since then, she’s had 11 sur­geries to repair the damage. The bones in her ankles and pelvis are fused. She was confined to a wheelchair for two years. It was four years before she walked again. With such severe, permanent injuries to her lower body, her mobility is limited. Her spirit is not.

“People are always asking me how I deal with all of it,” Portell said. “It’s just one day at a time.”

When the crash happened, she and her husband, Greg, had been raising Corriente cattle for rodeo stock. They sold them all after she came home from the hospital. It was a year and a half before they would do any farming again.

“Finally, we realized this was wrong,” Portell said. “We shouldn’t have to give up everything that we’d worked for and wanted to do in life because of the accident. We don’t want to have any regrets.”

In 2012, they started with 40 head of Angus cattle and have grown the herd to around 120 today. At first, Portell was dis­heartened, finding that even simple tasks took a tremendous toll on her mind and body.

“Acceptance was the hardest part,” Portell said. “I wasn’t angry or frustrated that the accident happened because there was nothing I could do about it. But my mind still said I could do all these things, and I just couldn’t.”

Enter AgrAbility. Portell learned about the organization during an MU Extension workshop for women involved in live­stock production. She reached out to Funkenbusch for help.

“I was trying to do everything the old way, and it wasn’t working,” Portell said. “For example, I was still trying to feed with buckets and bags. But lifting 50 pounds puts way too much pressure on me. I had a hard time thinking in terms of how it is now instead of the way it used to be. It wasn’t just a physical change; it had to be mental, too.”

As the self-described “herdswoman,” Portell takes care of the day-to-day chores, handles the bookkeeping and helps with working cattle, harvesting hay and maintaining the farm. Greg focuses on genetics and marketing in addition to his full-time job in convenience store construction.

“On good days, farming is my physical therapy. It gets my joints moving and muscles going. And mentally, it gives me something I can accomplish,” she said. “But there are days, especially when it’s damp and cold, I just cannot do it. It’s such a conflict inside me because I enjoy being able to do the work.”

AgrAbility and Vocational Rehabilitation helped Portell acquire the equipment she needed to make chores easier and more efficient—from anti-vibration ergonomic gloves that lessen the painful effects of bumpy tractor rides to a utility vehicle with a bulk feeder attached, which allows her to drive beside feed bunks and dispense the herd’s dinner without leaving the seat.

“My biggest problem is always how many steps I can take and the energy I need to do that,” Portell explained. “I’m limited to about 3,000 steps a day before I just can’t go anymore.”

Over the next year, she and Greg plan to build a fully handi­capped accessible house on a 380-acre farm they own in Craw­ford County. Their youngest child, Drew, will graduate from high school next year, leaving them with an empty nest. Portell said it was the right time to make the transition.

“My deterioration is inevitable, and I will eventually be wheelchair bound,” she said. “The house we are in now won’t work. I’m doing everything possible to prolong my mobility and manage the pain. I am so scared that if I give in a little, then I will lose my will. I don’t want to quit. I’m not ready yet.”

At the new farm, Portell plans to ask AgrAbility for help de­signing infrastructure, placing buildings, barns and pens in the most efficient way possible for someone with limited mobility.

“AgrAbility has made such a difference in my life on the farm, and it’s comforting to know they will have me covered as my needs change,” she said. “Working with AgrAbility means there’s someone saying, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’ve got you.’”

While farming is her personal purpose, Portell said inspiration has become her purpose for others. She not only writes a regular blog, but she also speaks to audiences ranging from school groups and churches to agricultural audiences and even Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She addresses the consequences of impaired and distracted driving, farming with disabilities and spiritual faith in times of crisis.

“In the beginning, it was only for me,” Portell said. “Every time I did a talk, it was a heal-and-purge process, and I would feel a little bit of the heaviness fall away. Now, I can see it in the audience’s faces. We’re connecting. They’re listening. I feel like I’m bringing something good out of what happened.”

Lee Howerton

Even with his thick glasses and protective shades, Lee Howerton is having a hard time seeing his cattle across the pasture of his Hurdland, Mo., farm. Believe it or not, there’s an app for that. The producer points his smartphone camera toward the herd, and the device turns into a high-definition visual magnifier.

Howerton has dealt with low vision and light sensitivity his whole life, but technology has made living with these optical obstacles easier in recent years.

“I can do just about anything I want to do, I just have to be careful and take my time,” he said. “I’ve always had to be cre­ative and figure out what my eyesight will allow.”

Howerton describes his vision as if he sees someone walking toward him, but the person’s face isn’t in focus. He compares the light sensitivity to watching someone who’s welding.

On the farm, he wears prescription glasses with heavy plum-tinted sunglasses over the top to filter light. He carries a monocular in his pocket and keeps binoculars handy.

“I can usually manage what I need with those, but even then, my eyes get sore, especially if I have a busy day,” Howerton said. “It just depends on what I’m doing.”

The 55-year-old has farmed this Knox County land since he graduated from high school in 1981 and started working with his father, Delbert. Back then, the operation was a pretty typical diversified Missouri farm—row crops, cattle and hogs—but as his father’s health and Howerton’s eyesight declined, they shift­ed to beef cattle, sheep and hay.

“I got to where I wasn’t able to run a combine or do finer field work,” Howerton said. “After my father passed away in 2005, we liquidated his cows, and I began building my own herd. That’s when I also started phasing out hay and doing more rotational grazing. It’s easier for me to move poly wire and temporary fence than it is to bale hay and move it around.”

Today, Howerton rents out his crop ground and maintains about 120 head of cattle on 500 acres of pasture. He also tran­sitioned his sheep operation from raising club lambs to produc­ing hair sheep that don’t require shearing. He changed calving and lambing seasons to warmer months, avoiding winter-born babies and giving him more daylight to check on newborns.

AgrAbility, along with Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, has helped Howerton farm more effectively with his visual lim­itations for more than 20 years. His first request was a Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle.

“What I really needed at that time was off-road transporta­tion,” Howerton said. “I used to have a restricted driver’s license, but I wasn’t confident about driving my pickup anymore. I drove that Mule for years. It really opened up what I could do.”

Through the years, Howerton also has benefited from AgrAbility assistance with text-to-speech readers, magnifying technology, livestock working equipment and cattle scales.

“That was a big deal for me,” he said. “My eyesight doesn’t al­low me to estimate weights of my cattle with confidence. When we work our calves, we want to wean at 450 pounds, so the scales let me know exactly how much they weigh.”

Howerton and his wife of 34 years, Sara, have three grown children and a 12-year-old son, Tage, who has autism. The Howertons hope to include him in the farming operation some­day. AgrAbility also works with youth and can help with that goal, Funkenbusch said.

At 56, Howerton has no plans to retire, even though his eye­sight continues to deteriorate.

“I looked into getting on disability once, but apparently I work too much,” Howerton said. “It was discouraging, but I’d rather farm anyway. I enjoy taking care of livestock. I love the sustainable aspect of agriculture. I love the challenge of trying to make my grass do better. I’m not one to sit still for long.”

As longtime AgrAbility clients, the Howertons are considered one of the program’s “success stories,” Funkenbusch said. They’ve even been asked to speak at AgrAbility training workshops about their experiences. Howerton said his message is simple: He isn’t sure he could be farming today without AgrAbility.

“It’s relieved some stressful situations, things I was worried about or having trouble with,” Howerton said. “I’m able to do a better job at what I do because of AgrAbility’s help.”

For more information, contact the Missouri AgrAbility Project at 1-800-995-8503, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or online at agrability.missouri.edu.

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Made in TF Country: The right blend

In 1961, Merle “Jack” Doyle introduced the agricultural industry’s first drum-style rotary fertilizer blender, catering to an emerging movement to­ward prescription plant food applications.

In 2019, his namesake company, Doyle Equipment Manufac­turing, introduced its latest innovation, a 24-ton rotary blender designed for ag retailers with big-batch fertilizer mixing needs. The blender is one of the largest on the market and is nominated for “Product of the Year” by CropLife Iron magazine—an award that’s never been given to dry fertilizer equipment.

“From the very beginning, we’ve been a leader in this industry, and we always strive to be the best at what we do,” said Monty Doyle, Jack’s grandson and the company’s current president. “After all, it’s our name on the side of the equipment.”

When his grandfather founded the company in 1951, there were two names on the equipment: Doyle and Adams. Jack and his business partner, Merlin Adams, owned a Stag Beer distri­bution business together in Quincy, Ill., just a couple hours away from where the regional brew was born in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill. Around the same time, the pair began dabbling in dry fertilizer equipment, manufacturing mechanical truck spreaders.

This odd combination of business ventures didn’t last much more than a decade, with the partners amicably going their separate ways in the early 1960s. Merlin continued in the beer business, while Jack focused on expanding his dry fertilizer equipment line.

From those early beginnings, Jack, who died in 1989, built the family business into a highly successful enterprise, which today manufactures dry fertilizer blending, conveying, tending and spreading equipment with 160 employees and two state-of-the-art facilities in Palmyra, Mo. Doyle equipment can now be found in 70 countries and every U.S. state but Alaska. Many of MFA’s facilities are equipped with Doyle blending systems, tenders and spreaders.

Jack turned over management of the company to his son, Ron, who then passed the torch to his son, Monty, in the early 1990s. Doyle Manu­facturing saw explosive growth during the tenure of these second and third generations, and that trend continues today as Monty’s children, Colten, 30, Catie, 29, and Case, 23, take on leadership roles in the company and bring a fresh approach to the business.

“As a family business, we wear a lot of hats, but we all have our own niche,” said Catie, who manages human resources. “Mine is the people side of things. When we came in as fourth generation, we knew that our next focus had to be internal to withstand continued growth.”

As farmers themselves, the Doyles also have a personal stake in the industry they serve. The family farms some 4,000 acres in Marion County, Mo., and Pike County, Ill., raising corn and soybeans. Such hands-on experience provides a perspective that other equipment manufacturers may not have, Monty said.

“We understand all the fertilizer, the chemicals, the blending, the micronutrients and the precision technology,” he said. “We apply all our nitrogen and do all of our fertilization. We also understand the struggles of farming, especially this year. The flood­ing was one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever had. We lost about 800 acres. We know what farmers are facing, and we know times are tight.”

For more than 65 years, Doyle’s manufacturing facilities remained in the original factory Jack had acquired in 1954 in downtown Quincy. As the equipment lines and sales increased, Doyle outgrew its infrastructure. Landlocked with no more room to expand, the family purchased what they call their Riverview Manufacturing facility in Palmyra in 2005 and moved the spreader line there. In 2011, they broke ground for the company’s flagship facility on 144 acres just off busy Highway 61 in Palmyra. They finally moved all operations into the 232,000-square-foot plant in 2017.

“Over the years as we grew in Quincy, we just added a building and added a building, so we were really strung out and bottlenecked,” said Monty, who joined the business full time in 1983. “There, we had about 120,000 total square footage of buildings. This building here is almost six acres under roof.” 

With the modern facility came renewed focus on improving company culture, efficiencies and technology. And it’s paying off, Monty said. For example, a state-of-the-art fiberoptic laser cutter carves out steel parts five times faster than the facility’s old machines, keeping the assembly lines con­tinually supplied with parts. The Doyles also switched to using bulk welding gas instead of individual tanks that had to be manually replenished. Monty estimates this change saves the company about $30,000 in the cost of the gas and another $30,000 in labor.

“The move gave us a chance to rethink everything,” he said. “We had almost maxed our growth the way we ran the old company. And now that it’s more streamlined, we’re up 14% in sales and no overtime in the shop. Before, we ran overtime in blending for five years at 50 hours a week. The amount of money it costs when you’ve got to kick in overtime is huge.”

In a labor-intensive metal fabrication business, human resources can be challeng­ing, Monty admits, but Doyle manages to attract and retain good employees. Providing a pleasant work environment is one reason. The new plant is illuminated with all LED lighting, and safety and housekeeping are priorities. Supervisors lead weekly safety meetings, and every Friday afternoon, there’s a mandatory shutdown for a total floor cleanup.

Catie also said she believes the fact that the business has been family owned and operated for 68 years and four generations also helps foster employee loyalty. Another son, Casch, 21, will join the operation when he graduates from Northwestern University next year. The youngest Doyle, Bryden, is only 8 years old but, like his siblings, will have a chance to learn the family business.

“When I say family owned and operated, I mean we’re in it every single day—work­ing side by side with our employees,” Catie said. “That’s different from a larger corporate entity where you’re just a number. Here it’s more that family-owned atmosphere. We care about you and your family and want to make sure that you’ve got a healthy, clean place to work.”

As for customer loyalty, Monty said service sets Doyle apart from other fertilizer equip­ment manufacturers. Relationships matter, he stressed, adding that he and his family work hard to build and nurture their busi­ness relationships with a personal touch.

“We will jump through hoops to take care of our customers, especially in the spring and the fall when time is short and the stakes are high,” Monty said. “If something breaks or something’s not right, our hearts are into it. We’re going to fix it. We’re going to make it better. That’s why we have such great relationships with a lot of companies such as MFA, and they keep coming back.”

More information on Doyle Equipment Manufacturing can be found online at www.doylemfg.com

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Labor shortage? Not here.

Finding and retaining qualified, dependable workers is a perennial challenge for farmers and agribusinesses. Don Nikodim hears that complaint at every meeting he attends, and he attends plenty as executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association.

“There are lots of job opportunities for good people, but farmers tell me they find that many people don’t really want to work,” Nikodim said. “Sometimes they won’t even show up, or they only stay a couple of days.”

Hog and dairy producers need help year-round. Workers must be on the job every day, and the duties are often physically demanding. As Nikodim said, “If you don’t take care of the animals, they won’t take care of you.”

Adding to the dilemma is the fact that Missouri’s labor market is tighter than the national average, according to Joe Horner, agricultural economist with the commercial ag program at the University of Missouri. In August 2019, the national unemploy­ment rate was 3.7 percent, while Missouri’s was 3.2 percent. When other jobs are readily available, farmers have an even tougher row to hoe when it comes to recruiting and retaining workers, Horner added.

“Most young people are less willing to work long hours for weeks at a time, which is common on livestock operations and row-crop farms during planting and harvest seasons,” he said.

Swine producer Kenny Brinker knows these challenges first­hand, but he’s found a formula that works on his sow operation near Auxvasse, Mo. He employs eight people, and most have been with his team for years.

The secret is simple, Brinker said: “We treat ’em nice and pay ’em well. We never have a problem with labor.”

Brinker Farms maintains an average of 2,800 sows at the homeplace. Shane Sorell manages a seven-member team that feeds and cares for the sows and their piglets. He came to work for the Brinkers at age 25.

“I was fortunate to stumble across Kenny 25 years ago,” Sorell said, adding that two other employees joined the team 21 and 19 years ago. “He’s laid back. He takes care of the overall business and lets us take of the pigs.”

Kenny and his wife, Susan, have two sons, Travis and Cody, who work on the farm, along with the Brinkers’ son-in-law Gary Seute, who is married to their daughter, Amanda. The family members focus on raising 4,200 acres of corn and soybeans to provide the feed needed for the sow operation. They also take care of incoming breeding stock quarantined at another location.

The Brinkers encourage swine facility employees to work independently. In fact, family members never enter the sow buildings, largely to preserve biosecurity. They communicate with the sow management team by phone, fax and a weekly production meeting.

“We give each team member responsibilities, and they figure out what to do,” Brinker said. “The team makes its own decisions.”

While livestock employees often work long hours, Brinker employees work from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., with two half-hour lunch breaks. Since pigs require daily care, employees rotate through a 42-hour workweek, and each works every third weekend. Most have earned three weeks of vacation, and all receive six paid holidays along with time off for medical and personal business. They also receive health benefits.

Brinker said he seeks out good people and makes them feel appreciated and respected. On the rare occasions when the farm hires new workers, the recruits go through a probationary period to make sure they fit into the culture.

“We pay our employees more than what other similar opera­tions pay, along with a year-end bonus,” he said. “Our expecta­tions are high and turnover is low.”

A veterinarian once told Brinker he was paying his people too much. “I explained that our costs per pig out the door are less than other farms,” Brinker replied.

Indeed, production levels and profitability are the true tests of any livestock operation. Brinkers’ productivity ranks in the top 5% of hog farms.

“Other producers can’t understand how we get that kind of productivity,” Brinker said. “While the average hog produces about 25 or fewer piglets a year, we produce about 31. We produce a lot of pigs.”

Carol Gregg, who owns Flexible Ag Staffing based in Chilli­cothe, Mo., has experienced the challenges of finding depend­able, qualified workers in today’s competitive labor market. Her company provides staffing assistance to agribusinesses in five Midwestern states—mostly agricultural cooperatives, including MFA Incorporated—placing about 2,000 workers a year. While she doesn’t provide workers to farms, agribusinesses run into similar labor issues.

“Finding people is getting more difficult, and our services have become more important to employers,” Gregg says. “We handle background checks and drug screening. We only hire drug-free workers, and 90% of applicants don’t pass the drug tests or background checks.”

Gregg said people move from job to job quickly these days, always seeking higher pay. In the 17 years that she’s owned the business, turnover rates have grown from 7% to 50%.

That’s why MU’s Horner thinks Brinker and others like him are on to something.

“Farmers seem to understand that future workers will be more highly skilled, more expensive and more of a critical asset worth retaining,” Horner said. “Many farmers tell me they would rather pay more for capital investments and for better-trained employees than to deal with the headaches of entry-level workers and the turnover involved.”

For the Brinkers, family members are key to their la­bor force, and the farm’s future is in the hands of the next generation. It’s just as important to keep them satisfied as it is unrelated employees, Kenny Brinker said. He and Susan adopted an estate plan years ago, and their children now own a majority of shares in the farm.

“If I kick the bucket tomorrow,” Brinker said, “we have it all set up to keep the business going.”

While Brinkers’ youngest son, Cody, remains single for now, Amanda and Gary have four children under 5, and Travis and his wife, Kaylie, are raising three under 5.

“The grandkids already take turns in the buddy seat in trac­tors and other equipment, and we enjoy picnics in the field,” Brinker said. “Our kids look forward to their kids working on the farm in the future.”

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